July 20, 2007
V 35 Issue 29

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Bits & Bytes
Feminist Princess Ida scores for Gilbert & Sullivan, Taproot hits summer gold with Technicolor Dreamcoat, ACT's political hit, Stuff Happens, ends this weekend
by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

With summer in full swing, Emerald City arts fans are in artistic heaven-Taproot's summer musical, usually a box office bonanza for the hard working North Seattle theater company, is another in a long line of audience-pleasing hits, the once-a-year Gilbert & Sullivan Society has a rare staging of Princess Ida with strong feminist philosophies, ACT and Intiman theaters delighted stage fans with solid "serious" stagings.

Cabaret is alive and well at Crepe de Paris with three summer shows in rapid succession and new openings at ACT, ReAct and Intiman promise great drama on the summer schedule. It's another great week for stage fans-and, of course, Bits&Bytes. Read on:

Taproot Theatre, which makes it North Seattle home in the Greenwood area, has a long tradition of audience-pleasing summer shows-usually a mini-musical or an off-beat mystery. The troupe's earlier Biblical musical outing, Godspell, was a huge hit and was extended for most of the late summer and fall. This year's Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat will undoubtedly follow in the same box office bonanza manner.

The toe-tapping musical is obviously an audience hit with strong critical reaction. The opening Saturday night performance verged on the ragged side after an exhausting week of tech rehearsals, dress rehearsals, two preview performances and opening night. Undoubtedly, vocal problems and projection issues will smooth out with this week's run-the show is a delight from start to finish and will undoubtedly be a smash hit.

Director Scott Nolte, Taproot's founder and artistic director, has approached Technicolor Dreamcoat with a new concept. Past professional productions-in London, New York, on endless U.S. tours-have often jazzed up the mini-musical with a zillion dollar budget, tremendous special effects and an aging teenage heartthrob in the lead. For Taproot's intimate stage, Nolte has gone in the reverse direction.

A 10-member casts dispenses with traditional casting-men and women move easily from one character to another. Indeed, the women in the cast quickly pull on a hat or a beard and play male roles. After all, Joseph is one of 12 sons of Jacob, or, as the cast sings in a ricky-ticky vaudeville spoof, "It's all there in Chapter 39 of Genesis."

Nolte and Taproot continue the company's color-blind casting traditions. Here, Joseph and the narrator are African American actors, echoing the troupe's Godspell staging which used an Hispanic Jesus-which gave the show a new twist and Taproot a new audience. SGN and Bits&Bytes, of course, celebrate cultural diversity in all areas and praise Taproot for approaching established material with a new concept.

Nolte also uses a "concept" approach in the staging of Joseph-with mixed results. The press and preview materials point out that Nolte sets the musical in a Moroccan night club. The female narrator, a stunning Faith Russell, decked out in a 1930's glamour gown in green velvet, comes complete with a gardenia behind her ear. As she croons the prologue into a period microphone, the "floorshow" comes alive with the story of "Jacob-Jacob & Sons."

Using an intimate nightclub for an intimate version of Joseph could work as a "concept," but the concept here is quickly abandoned and the involving story simply works as it always has-in the Bible or in this Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical version. Joseph, well performed by Brian Demar Jones in his first work with Taproot, is the favorite son of Jacob. A "coat of many colors," the Technicolor Dream coat of this disco era musical, causes jealousy among the other siblings. Joseph, who has a magic way with interpreting dreams, is sold into slavery, ends up in Egypt, saves Pharaoh and the Egyptian people from seven years of drought and famine, etc, etc. etc. Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour had a fun trip on the Road To Morocco and Taproot and this Joseph repeat the zany feel of that Hollywood classic.

Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat runs through Aug. 11 with extensions possible, likely and all but certain. Advance sales-highly recommended-and full details are available at 781-9707.

The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, celebrating its 53rd season, offers a rare staging of G&S's Princess Ida, continuing through July 28 at the Bagley Wright Theatre, the home of the Seattle Rep, at the Seattle Center. The operetta-the usual fluff of Gilbert and Sullivan with a bit of serious pro-feminist philosophy-is rarely produced. The Society staged the work in 1971 and 1990, and it might be another 20 years before the engaging musical returns to center stage.

This 2007 production is a delight in all areas. A talented cast of 40, a polished 27-piece orchestra and stylish sets and costumes all blend together to make Princess Ida a welcome addition to Seattle's summer arts scene. Producer Mike Storie, stage director Christine Goff and music director Bernard Kwiram (who also conducts the talented orchestra) all work together to make this Ida a charmer.

As usual, the G&S Society publishes a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer in the summer program: "Attempts at a detailed literal analysis of any Gilbert & Sullivan plot will only upset you and annoy your friends and others seated near you."

The musical, premiered in 1884, was unusually topical for its time. Ida, a princess, is more concerned with women's education than with men. She has founded a school for women only-a revolutionary concept for 1884 (but not without historical precedent). Betrothed since infancy to the prince of the neighboring kingdom, Ida has vowed to never marry and devote herself to what we would now call "feminist issues."

Her intended is so intent on marrying the beautiful Ida that he and two trustworthy friends, also besmitten with two of Ida's students-disguise themselves as "new women" to register at Ida's school. Faster than you can say Some Like It Hot, the audience is delighted with the triple drag team of randy gentlemen camping it up.

Princess Ida is a sprawling tale in a never, never land far, far away. Its medieval setting allows the design team to run riot with Maxfield Parrish-like costumes and castles. Like any Gilbert and Sullivan work, part of Ida's appeal is the rarity of production. For many SGN readers, the strong feminist message is a plus. For many of Bits&Bytes' friends, the campy cross-dressing, tongue-in-cheek drag scenes are a fun, fun bonus.

Individual performances in all leading roles are strong, but Ida is a no-star show with many characters taking the lead in the shifting story. Amanda Brown makes a delightful title character and has a charming, lilting soprano (that, alas, is hard to understand although her diction seems perfect). Scott Rittenhouse is great as the amorous Prince, but the whole cast works so well as an ensemble that it seems unfair to single out other performers. (G&S regular-and audience favorite-David "Patter King" Ross has fun as King Gama but his role is strictly supporting and allows him little time stage center.)

Princess Ida continues weekend performances-evenings and the ever-popular Saturday matinees-through July 28. Remember that Bite Of Seattle overpopulates the Seattle Center this weekend-plan ahead, leave early, use public transportation or plan to walk and walk to access the Center. Tickets and other details at 341-9612.

Victor Pappas' solid staging of David Hare's Stuff Happens--the "inside the White House" tale of George Bush and the lead up to the invasion of Iraq--ends its stimulating and satisfying run at ACT Theatre with final performances through Sunday.

SGN praised the production in an earlier issue, but Bits&Bytes just wants to add more praise for the political drama and its outstanding ACT staging. Robert A. Dahlstrom's outstanding scenic and set design especially deserves mention.

ACT's downtown home, the old Eagles auditorium, incorporates two stages-one, a thrust stage, the other, a theatre-in-the-round. Many times, a production feels shoehorned into one stage or the other. This time around, Stuff Happens excels because of the theatre-in-the-round setting.

The focus of Dahlstrom's set is the circular playing area. A Presidential Seal, seemingly a round rug, tells us that this is the Oval Office at the White House. But-in a highly theatrical manner-the "rug" elevates and becomes a conference table, Later, it changes use and appearance.

With the audience seated all around the circular center, the aisles and the area behind the audience become part of the playing area in this innovative production. Other characters-politicians, journalists, ensemble members-speak from behind the audience, circling the crowd, making the theater patrons members of the cast in many scenes. The politically immediacy of the script, the You Are There-feeling of the play is established and reinforced by the circle-within-a-circle staging.

Reservations for the final five performances are available at 292-7676. Stuff Happens is well worth a look-make it your "must see" this weekend.


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